Last time the children knew Grandfather was up to something because he seemed angry. In an interesting (I’m using the adjective loosely here) change of events, this time they know something is up because he’s happy – he’s joking with Benny, and it’s an event to be remarked on and remembered and followed closely. At length. It really gives you some insight into day-to-day life with Grandfather, when any hint of emotion is an anomaly to be noted. I can only imagine that his normal state of being is a kind of catatonic, drugged out bliss—with blank eyes and a frozen expression of nothingness.
This time Grandfather has surprised his brood of orphans with a trip to the South Seas! Not on a cruise ship, as you’d imagine, but instead on a freighter, probably running illicit cargo to Tahiti. Grandfather had planned on just taking them to San Francisco and then he considered Tahiti (probably to sell as house slaves), but THEN his friend tells him about first mate Lars Larson (Gertie’s not too creative about naming people. It’s probably where Benny gets his skillz. Remember Potato Camp?) Lars got shipwrecked on this deserted island for an indeterminate amount of time, and it was so much fun (!) that he wants to go back FOR VACATION. I think Lars has PTSD. Sidebar – in another interesting insight of Life with James Henry (LWJH from now on), when the kids come in to meet Lars for the first time, Grandfather announces that he’s their friend from now on. He just decrees it so, and no one bats an eye. Let’s take a poll about why we think that he declares Lars their friend, so saith JH, let it be written instead of letting them decide if they actually want to be friends with this middle-aged stranger who has appeared in their living room and has whispered conversations with their grandfather behind closed doors. He calls them all “Mr.” and “Miss,” so he knows his place. This is probably why they don’t have more friends.
Anyway, what better place to send your grandchildren than a deserted, UNCHARTED island where no one can find them? And for some reason Mike Wood is also going—apparently Benny is the only one that has friends. In Surprise Island, all the other children had at least one other friend, but I think that they were just rentals. Grandfather has been corresponding with Mike (but not his mother, I presume) about the trip–Benny mentions in passing that he had noticed his childlike scrawl on incoming envelopes, but I guess nothing about Grandfather exchanging letters with a seven year old seemed mysterious? Aren’t these kids supposed to be inquisitive? Grandfather is a TYCOON, BITCHES, and nothing about him makes it seem likely that he’d have any interest in being Mike’s pen pal. Nonetheless, apparently they’ve been corresponding for months. I suspect that Mike has some dirt on Grandfather, possibly something about an entire town suffering from uranium poisoning, and JH is trying to placate him with a fabulous vacation. Perhaps a vacation where a small boy could easily go astray and get left behind. Or shipwrecked. Or eaten by the sharks that abound in Blue Bay. PROBLEM SOLVED.
The most exciting part of the trip is that they will all be missing school—but Grandfather doesn’t want them to miss out on education—he knows that his grandchildren are too dense to catch up with the rest of the class if they’re out for more than two days. So he has their teachers create unique textbooks for each child, individually bound, color-coded, and stamped with their names in gold. REAL GOLD.
Of course, the books are violet for Violet, red for Benny, green for Henry, and blue for Jessie, because everything they own is one single shade. Even their suitcases follow their stringent color guidelines. Do you think Grandfather can’t tell them apart unless they are wearing their assigned color? Or he’s just OCD and likes everything to match? It’s very Captain Von Trappe of him, minus the piercing whistle. He obviously chooses color coding instead since the whistle would probably aggravate his hangover and you can see colors when you just barely open your eyes.
Naturally, Grandfather flies the children to the ship on his private jet. Mike Wood is waiting unaccompanied on the airstrip, his mother probably sick with worry back at the mine, unable to make a single pie. Frozen pie crusts and cans of filling are going to waste back at Mike’s Mother’s Place. We’re assuming that the handsome Mr. Carter took care of brokering this deal on Grandfather’s behalf, and he’ll also be in charge of making sure that Mike keeps quiet when he gets back. I’m pretty sure that he is in charge of doing JH’s dirty work.
Every morning Grandfather rings a school bell, and every day, fortuitously, whatever the children see in the ocean is exactly what is outlined that day in their specialized textbooks. It’s like Grandfather knows the future. OR CONTROLS IT.
He’s also arranged for them to look at some seaweed. Joe probably pointed out how much they enjoyed naming the different kinds of seaweed (red seaweed, pink seaweed, etc., not the actual names) back on Surprise Island, and Grandfather uses this as an excuse to distract them while he occupies himself elsewhere on the ship. “Kids! Look at this bag of seaweed! I’ve brought a microscope so you can look at it UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL-LIKE to be sure that you’ve assigned the proper colors to each bit. Then you can divvy it up amongst yourselves based on the Alden Family Color Coding Scheme.”
The most exciting part of the trip comes when they get to help Lars pack the lifeboat for the trip to the island.
“OMG we LOVE TO PACK THINGS!” Jessie shouts with a maniacal gleam in her eyes.
“Dry milk! Canned meat! Canned beans! Things in cans are MY FAVORITE!” Benny exclaims with glee.
This is the part of the story where I become certain there are drugs somewhere on that boat. Don’t even get me started on Benny and Mike getting in a fight about who can eat more bread.
The group heads out into the lifeboat and makes it to the island in about three seconds. Lars warns them not to swim in the bay because they will get eaten by killer sharks. This is, of course, the bay that they’ve all just been neck-deep in dragging the boat to shore. I am disappointed to realize that Grandfather is (uncharacteristically) accompanying them on this trip. What?? The Aldens don’t do things as a family! This is Grandfather’s summertime of debauchery! There is only one explanation—Grandfather is trying out a cheap rehab program. Unwise, as being around his grandchildren 24/7 will surely drive him to drink. Fortunately, there is sugarcane on this island, so if he gets desperate he can always try to rig up a still out of some shells and a coconut husk. The whole point of the vacation is that the kids like to make “something of nothing” – you can’t make this stuff up – and what better way to apply themselves than to help old JH get his fix?
Predictably, the next twenty pages describe dinner. You wouldn’t think that amount of writing would be necessary to describe picking bananas and opening cans of beans—but you’d be wrong. Everyone decides to carve themselves a spoon, except Violet of course who is too delicate. And then Jessie finds the perfect place to wash the dishes. You can tell this is a real vacation, because Jessie lets everyone wash their own dishes. She is really taking it easy. Remember her despair about washing the dump dishes in cold water? By now she’s decided that it’s totally fine to eat out of shells that they found on the beach and rinsed in the ocean. A little fish poo never hurt anyone. It’s all organic, right? She and Violet are pretty excited about having washed them in salt water – maybe they think that salty=clean? Obviously their specialized textbooks didn’t contain details about how too much salt leads to heart disease. Or maybe they did, and they’re trying to send Grandfather to an early grave out in the wilds of the uncharted Tahiti-adjacent Pacific. If they’re smart, they’ll cut Lars in on the deal for a small percentage of their inheritance.
The next morning Grandfather wakes up craving his fix. Gertrude uses the euphemism ‘coffee’ but we all know the truth. Luckily for him, Violet only lives for other people’s approval, and she has smuggled some in. How delightful. Now Grandfather will never get clean. In the meantime, Violet has nothing to hem since her secret package was full of coffee, and I’m willing to bet that it’s driving her to distraction. I hope that Grandfather appreciates her sacrifice when he sobers up and sees her unraveling the blankets for thread.
After breakfast, the children go exploring, and unsurprisingly find an enormous, Easter-island type statue in about five seconds. This priceless archeological find hardly phases our heroes, who are mostly just interested in finding tidal pools and colored seaweed. Benny does make a special note of a drinking shell next to the spring, though, so he’s got his priorities in order. No one even thinks about how much their “archaeologist” cousins Joe and Alice would love this Easter Island-esque find, either. Joe practically peed his pants with excitement about the arrowheads on Surprise Island. Imagine how he’d feel about a giant statue? Of course, he and Alice are probably making it rain back at Alden Manor while they’re staying there unsupervised, so they could probably care less about the statue. Now that I think about it, they didn’t really care about the arrowheads, either, as evidenced by the whole dynamite scenario.
In the next ten minutes, about fifteen mysterious things have happened, including an unripe coconut falling from a tree, and the discovery of what appears to be installation artwork in a tide pool. If that wasn’t enough, the next day they find a turtle shell with the exact same design carved into it. Instead of preserving the mysterious artwork, the Aldens immediately utilize it as cookware. Art shmart. Take a bath hippie, the Aldens would say. They have fish stew to make, and they need a kettle. I personally love how they decided to make fish stew long before anyone found the shell, which is just exactly what they need. THE PUPPETMASTER STRIKES AGAIN.
The group goes down to the old fishing hole to catch the ingredients for their new turtle kettle—but Lars only has enough fishing lines for the boys. It’s just as well, Grandfather points out, the girls probably would mess it up anyways. It’s best to just let them watch from the rocks while all four boys try to catch the same grouper trapped in a tide pool. Sporting! Eventually someone (Henry maybe? I drifted off there for a bit) lands the grouper, and we can go back to the huts. An extensive description of cleaning and cooking the fish follows. Riveting stuff, this.
Nothing mysterious happens during the food preparation. Gertie doesn’t like to get sidetracked when meals are involved, which is a position I can get behind. However, as soon as she’s described every detail of stew prep (dried onions!), clues start popping up fast and thick again. Next, there’s a myna bird that says “Hello, Peter!” Benny strains his mental faculties and deduces that Peter must have been the person who taught the bird to talk. You really can’t get anything by this kid. He’s probably been drinking a lot of canned milk, so he’s at the top of his game. They spend the next chapter updating us on the stew preparation, discussing Peter, and planning their next meal. Henry thinks it will be pretty exciting if Peter is on the island right now. Because that’s not creepy. They’ve only been there for two weeks without seeing anyone. Violet is worried that it’s a cannibal, but Grandfather reasonably points out that cannibals don’t speak English. Apparently it’s a mutually exclusive thing, so they’re all safe. Old JH can be quite helpful when he’s lucid. I’m fairly certain that Violet’s special textbook covered cannibals extensively because this is not the last we’ll hear about them. Clearly no one screened the book for content that wouldn’t upset her delicate constitution. Heads will roll. Grandfather does not like it when Violet is upset.
Speaking of rolling heads, Mike preempts Benny and renames Blue Bay Shark Bay, lest they forget about the danger lurking beneath the lovely blue water. I expected a knock-down, drag-out fistfight over this coup, but Benny doesn’t say anything. He made a huge to-do about not knowing that Mike could swim, but he’s fine with him taking over giving things stupid and obvious names? That’s Benny’s trademark. I think Benny’s been hitting the sauce when Grandfather isn’t looking. Nothing else could explain how chill he is about the situation. Jessie is always worried that Benny is going to pitch a fit when something doesn’t suit him, so I suspect that he throws tantrums on a regular basis.
Several chapters of island fun follow. Then one day Henry declares that he doesn’t want to nap, and in true codependent Stepford fashion, the other kids jump right on that bandwagon. You know they don’t like to be separated for any length of time. Even Mike has relinquished his independence and sense of individuality by now. Since there are a lot of mysterious things going on, they decide to head inland into the untamed wilderness. Grandfather and Lars both know that this is foolish since there is clearly someone loose on the island, but they don’t want to send Violet into hysterics because she’s afraid of cannibals again, so they wave goodbye and send the children merrily on their way without even a machete to “clear away brush.” Actually, that’s probably wise. I can totally see Violet sobbing her eyes out over the mutilation of those poor, helpless plants and their displacement from their home on the jungle path. Anyway, Grandfather is having his nap come hell or high water, so he sends Lars after the kids to keep an eye on them. This seems surprisingly protective until you realize that Lars is in the middle of mending one of the huts and he’s probably making a lot of noise and keeping Grandfather from getting his beauty sleep.
Meanwhile, the kids are traipsing through the wilderness without a care in the world. They revisit the Easter Island statue so that they can go rock climbing on the priceless artifact, having totally forgotten Grandfather’s earlier warning about needing to avoid broken legs since they’re miles from medical help. Of course, Jessie has probably taken some sort of first aid course as a part of her effort to be the world’s greatest homemaker, and she’s likely anxious to try out her new skillset, so maybe she’s encouraging the others to flirt with danger. I kept waiting for Indiana Jones to spring out of the woods and yank them off of the statue with his whip (this book would be AMAZING if Indy was hiding in the woods), but no such luck. All of the other Aldens scramble up the rocks, leaving poor little Violet to fend for herself. Fortunately, Mike remembers that she is a special snowflake melting in the tropical heat, and he helps her climb up. I’d like to point out that Mike is probably seven years old and Violet is around twelve, but from all the description of how strong Mike is, you’d think that Arnold Schwarzenegger in his Conan days is helping her destroy archaeological evidence instead of her kid brother’s best friend.
“OMG YOU GUYS. There is a STUMP over here on this mountain and I know it didn’t grow here because there are stones all around the edges to hold it in place and also we are sitting on a slab of rock!!!” Detective Benny explains the obvious to everyone else, as usual.
“What an AMAZING observation! I WONDER WHAT IT’S FOR???”
“INDEED. Why would there be a stump here that didn’t grow here but it is so obviously here for a reason?”
Thankfully, Henry cuts this tiresome babble off by standing on the stump. Lo and behold, he finds a cave that is an EXACT REPLICA of the dear old boxcar, right down to Benny’s pink cup. Hello, Puppetmaster. We’ve missed you.
Benny sees something leaping through the trees and he goes tearing off through the jungle after it. In a scene remarkably reminiscent of his wandering off into the woods after the hermit in The Yellow House Mystery, no one notices that he’s gone. In this case, it’s even more ridiculous since they’re halfway up a mountain on a ledge that I’m assuming he has to leap off of in order to track a possible cannibal in the trees. He’s also off of any discernible path, so I’m thinking that he’s making a considerable amount of noise as he crashes through the wilderness. This should give you an idea of how engrossed everyone is in watching Mike try out the bed in the boxcar cave.
Anyway, Benny is following the mystery man in the trees (sadly not the original Mystery Man, Mr. Carter. That would have been an amazing twist. “Oh, hi, guys. It’s me, Mr. Carter, JH’s personal uranium hunter and general fixer. I’m just hiding here in the trees masquerading as a cannibal and living in a cave eerily reminiscent of your former home”) when he falls into a giant brush-covered pit. Most people would be alarmed to be trapped in a pit on a remote island possibly populated by cannibals after having run off into the jungle without telling anyone where they were going. Not Benny, though.
“Oh, I seem to have fallen into a deep pit. Lucky it isn’t filled with snakes.”
Okay, I lied. He’s actually glad it’s not full of water, but that’s stupid since water would break the fall and he’d be closer to the top. If he was concerned about crocodiles or piranhas, then yeah, maybe, but just water? Don’t be an idiot, Benny. Fortunately, a shaggy head pops over the rim in just a few minutes.
“Hi, Benny! I’m Peter. I see you’ve fallen into my trap. Instead of just coming out to meet potential rescuers after determining that you weren’t cannibals or rapists, I’ve been watching you from the trees and stealing your food for weeks. Now that I’ve caught you and you seem to be unharmed, it seemed like a good time to introduce myself.”
Most people would be alarmed that they’ve been living in close proximity to a stalkery Peeping Tom-esque thief for the past few weeks, but Benny is totally nonchalant about it. Sneaking Grandfather’s booze is really taking the edge off. Also, what was Peter planning on trapping in this giant hole? Lions? Tigers? Bears? Lars has gone on and on about how there aren’t any dangerous animals on the island, so it seems like a waste of effort to dig the hole. Also, you’d be a sitting duck for predators while you were digging it, so you’d be dead long before the trap became useful if there were any maneaters on the island. Also, what did he dig this huge pit with? Shells? This whole business stinks, and not just because Peter hasn’t had a bath in six months. I’m hypothesizing that Peter, so long removed from social interaction, felt he needed an ice breaker. Walking into their camp and introducing himself was too intimidating, but he felt that greeting them after they fell into a giant hole that he created would be the perfect opportunity to make polite introductions. At least in that scenario, they’d be at his mercy.
Peter and Benny become best friends in a normal, two minute span, and the group leads him back to their huts. Despite being shipwrecked for less than seven months, and only alone for three weeks (his compatriot, we are informed, probably got eaten by sharks), AND having a talking pet bird whose intelligence predictably outranks all the children combined, Peter is having an awfully hard time remembering English. “I think I remember this…it’s called…pudding? Is it sweet? I’ve been here so long I’ve completely lost my memory!” However he DOES remember reading an article about the boxcar children years ago, and so he modeled his cave after it. I mean, is there really another way to decorate a cave besides a pile of leaves to sleep on and a shelf with a broken cup? Was the boxcar featured in Southern Living as an Idea Home? We’ll never know.
It makes you wonder how Lars can speak at all. And also how this island has remained undiscovered with people getting shipwrecked on it constantly.
Everyone seems concerned about reuniting Peter with his parents, even though they constantly reassure him that they’re probably dead.
“Don’t worry Peter,” says Grandfather, “I’ll do my darndest to track down your parents using Mr. Carter and my millions of dollars. I mean, they’re probably dead so don’t get your hopes up, but if they’re alive we’ll find them. If there’s any chance at all that they aren’t rotting at the bottom of the ocean, we will definitely get in touch with them. If not though, I’ll adopt you and you will be fabulously wealthy and can solve mysteries with my equally slow grandchildren. Your color can be ‘yellow.’ So, it’s really a win-win either way.”
Interestingly, everyone wants to protect Peter from the notion that his fellow shipwreckee probably was messily devoured by sharks in the bay, but no one is concerned that letting him know that he’s probably an orphan with nothing to return to will damage his delicate psyche. They distract him by telling him that his feet feel like dog feet since he hasn’t worn shoes in months.
Henry gives Peter a haircut, because only hippies and degenerates have long hair. Violet is giddy with joy that she gets to whip out her sewing kit (yes, she really packed that). Too bad she smuggled in coffee and couldn’t bring a bolt of cloth as well so she could make Peter an entire suit of clothes. I’m sure having him dressed in leaves is making her faint. Fortunately Henry loans Peter some clothes so Violet can focus on other tasks, like making pots and pots of coffee for Grandfather and Lars.
After an impromptu photo shoot with the captain’s secret camera (why does the camera have to be a secret? This detail totally unnecessary to the plot. We also don’t get to find out how the camera is disguised. A pen? Coffee cup? Crab trap? We’ll never know. That Gertie is such a tease) and a long discussion about the merits of bread, everyone is back on the ship heading home. Grandfather acts all covert, banning the children from the radio room because the operator is working on a ‘serious assignment.’ Obviously the kids know that Grandfather is looking for Peter’s family–I guess it wouldn’t be exciting if it wasn’t done all secretively? They all act super surprised when he finds them, though, so maybe they were so focused on eating toast that they forgot about long lost parents. Predictably, Grandfather tracks down Peter’s folks. His mom ends up not being Mike and Benny’s teacher, despite the fact that they share a last name, which actually surprises me, given Gertrude’s love of insane ‘coincidences.’
Blah, blah, blah, Peter meets his family again, gets new shoes, everyone eats peanut butter, everyone is happy to be home, the end.